How I Read
In my career, I have determined that there are three essential things that constitute work for a writer:
1. The act of writing itself, which should be conducted with discipline, meaning devote a lot of time to it in a regular and set way. Everyday for a set amount of hours is ideal, if not really practical in the demands of life (and nobody is a machine, rest and recharging the creative juices is a wonderful thing). But don’t treat it like a hobby or wait for retirement or put it off for some mythical day in the future when you will have all this extra time. The time is now! Many great writers had to juggle the time-demands of life all through their careers.
2. Write off the page. This means think about your work when you are going about life, think about your stories and characters in the shower, while shopping, while daydreaming. Perhaps not too hard: let the fertile garden of the subconscious do its mystical work. But be aware at all times that you are a writer and you have writing to do.
3. Read. Read a lot. Read more than anyone you know. Read so much that only other writers can understand how much you read. And when you read, read like a writer.
How to read like a writer:
I can only offer my experience, so when I say read like a writer, I mean read like me. I am being tongue-in-cheek here, but my reading experience is based on how other writers read. In my apprenticeship or discovery days when I was reading writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner for the first time and on my own for pleasure, I also read about their lives. They invariably described the books that they read to interviewers and biographers. It’s no secret that Hemingway liked the Russian novelists and wasn’t averse to picking up detective novels. Pay attention to the titles your favorite authors mention as having influenced them. Go and read those books immediately. Then read the books those older authors admired. Keep going, one author to the next, until you get to the end. The end will always be in the oldest texts we have, the ancient classics like Gilgamesh and scripture. Let writers who have come before save you time. They had good sense about books and they will suggest good titles, even though they are long gone now themselves.
Literature is a great tree. Its trunk is the classics of antiquity, and its branches are the various families or styles that have evolved from that in modern times. All of it should be read so that you can know your place in it, what has come before the work you are doing and paved the way for your work, and who your literary antecedents are. But reading all of literature is absolutely impossible for any one of us. Do the best that you can to build your literary foundation.
How do you do that? Coursework in high school and undergrad does help a lot; we get the basics there that give us a beginning commonality when we discuss the canon and what our shared literary tradition is. We can all generally count on everyone else having read the Greek epics, Beowulf, some Shakespeare, and a few American novels like Huck Finn, Catcher in the Rye and Gatsby. This should only be the beginning. Try to fill in those places of the history of our literary tradition if you can. If you hear certain works talked about repeatedly in class or wherever, Don Quixote for example, or Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” go read them. Writers all around you will always be talking about titles from the present and the past. The earnest writer will make an attempt to read all of these.
As you read, think about the place of each work on that great tree. You will start to see the branches form. Twain leads to Sherwood Anderson leads to Hemingway leads to Ray Carver leads to Tim O’Brien. Cervantes leads Calvino leads to Marquez leads to Saramago. Sappho leads to Chopin leads to Hurston leads to Morrison. And on and on. Who are you? Who are your literary parents?
We read as writers to understand the history of what has been said; it’s our basic foundation just like painters—even Jackson Pollock who is famous for splashing paint on canvases began with drawing the nude figure. We learn how stories open, continue, and close. Or we learn how others have experimented with that form. Many writers talk about typing out other writers’ story openings, or whole stories; I did this and discovered the cadences and lyricism in every line of DH Lawrence for example. Get intimate with the language on the page.
Reading should be enjoyed, of course, and there is a time for that. But once you are a writer, I do think it should be difficult to read for enjoyment alone. You should be thinking about how and why the sentences flow together, how a scene is built on specific images, and on and on. You should have two voices in your head as you read; one that likes or dislikes the work on a basic level, and another that is dissecting the very construction of how and why the words are where they are on the page, why a sentence is long or short, why a paragraph break occurs, why a metaphor works. If a book is a house, then you should be dismantling it in your mind. Your reading should be active and coupled with thought, not just a passive acceptance of what is on the page.
Here are two parting tips that I always employ in my reading. The first is, I always stop myself whenever I am reading and I realize that I have forgotten that I am reading. The great teacher of writing—Ray Carver’s teacher John Gardener—said that the goal of the novelist is to create the “continuous dream.” He meant that our goal is to create a work so engaging and sure that the reader becomes immersed in the world of it and the real world falls away. Whenever I realize that I have forgotten I am reading—this was difficult at first, like realizing you are having a dream while asleep—I stop, go back and recognize that the writer did something very successful and made me lose myself in the work. I try to identify what did it. There is always an answer, whether it be a particularly crisp passage of dialogue that brings the characters to life, or a particularly beautiful passage of description. I read these passages until I understand what worked so well.
The second thing I always do—and this is so easy and seemingly basic—I circle or note down any word that I do not know. In the beginning of my discovery, I was circling dozens of words in every book. Now it’s the rare word that is new to me. But I just read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I loved the book; it had me looking up words from the world of haute cuisine in nearly every paragraph. I hadn’t had such an education in years and felt so broadened and enriched.
There is a famous scene in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when the ship first arrives on the coast of West Africa. Conrad writes that the mists hung over the shore in “diaphanous folds.” I had to look up diaphanous. We know Conrad’s mastery of English even though it was his fourth language after Polish, Russian and French; where did he get all those lovely words? He spent years working on ships and said that he read the books available to him on them. These were usually romances of the era, full of words like “diaphanous.” So he stole them. That’s what we’re reading to do, to steal techniques, words, and make them our own. I think any writer is lost without a love for active reading. Nothing can be lost to a writer in any hour of reading; reading can also help us through those periods when our creative wells are dry. We may not be putting pen to page at those times, but we are reading. We can therefore feel good about ourselves that we are improving our toolboxes as writers. Anything a writer can do to help the fragile writer’s ego is a good thing; reading is the easiest and most necessary of these.
A last note on reading as a writer; when I was beginning in this craft and I would ask much older writers what they were reading, they invariably said, “The classics.” I found this annoying back then, thought they were being old curmudgeons, tired and closed to the new books being put out. Now I understand. There is really so very little time in a single life, that as the years pass, one wants to read ‘good’ books and not fritter away time as often on new works that have not yet been vetted by history. Those older writers found their reading time to be precious and not to be risked. To a certain extent, I have become like this myself.
But I am always glad to give a new title a try based on a recommendation. I rarely read books simply because they are bestsellers. I have my writing circle and trust their opinions. I am always amazed at the veins of great writing I didn’t know about and discover on a tip; I remember coming across the Icelandic sagas for the first time in this way, as well as the Hungarian poets pre-WWII. I know there are other periods out there waiting for me. Much of reading for me has become wading through books to find something truly great. It happens to me a few times a year. I also read out of my genre all the time; my reading in poetry, nonfiction, and scripts has also greatly contributed to my own writing and given me plenty of new fields for influence and discovery.